A consummate thespian through and through, actor Greg Hicks has, to date, appeared in some 70-odd professional stage productions. Many of these have been with either the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre, for both of whom Hicks has performed as a regular for long stretches.
At the National, his credits have included The Bacchae, The Fruits of Enlightenment, The Double Dealer, Undiscovered Country, As You Like It, Richard III, Sisterly Feelings, Man and Superman, The Oresteia, The Spanish Tragedy, Amadeus, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Animal Farm, Lorenzaccio, The Duchess of Malfi, The Cherry Orchard and, famously, Michael Bogdanov's notorious 1980 staging of Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain.
For the RSC, Hicks has appeared in productions of Romeo and Juliet, Dingo, Days of the Commune, Destiny, Much Ado About Nothing, Tantalus and, most recently, The Merry Wives of Windsor and the title role in Coriolanus.
Hicks' West End credits include Piaf, Murder by Misadventure, The Homecoming, Vanilla, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, King Lear, Waiting for Godot and The Seagull, while on television, he's been seen, amongst other programmes, in Guardian, Jason and the Argonauts, The Echo, Heartbeat, The Knock, Peak Practice, In Suspicious Circumstances, Under the Hammer, Families, Deadline, Northanger Abbey, Fortunes of War, Bergerac and Nightmare Years.
In the meantime, he's returned to the West End's Old Vic, where he was critically acclaimed this past summer for the transfer of Coriolanus and is now taking on yet another title role, playing Jesus Christ opposite Steven Berkoff's Satan in the latter's radical retelling of the New Testament, Messiah - Scenes from a Crucifixion.
Date & place of birth
In Leicester on 27 May, 1953. I grew up there until secondary school, when we went to Oakham in Rutland.
Lives now in...
Since 1975, I've always lived in southeast London.
First big break
I went straight from Rose Bruford drama school to the Royal Shakespeare Company, but the break I had wasn't the one I expected. In the morning before the first day of rehearsals, I nearly broke my neck doing a yoga headstand I'd taught myself to do from a book, and ended up slipping a disc in my back. So I never made it to rehearsals, but ended up in hospital instead, before crawling back to do a community pub job in Manchester, wearing a surgical collar. My real break was going to the National Theatre, and staying for seven years from 1979 to 1986, which put me in a place where I had some kind of credibility as an actor.
Career highlights to date
There are a few: The Oresteia at the National, the Coriolanus that I've just done with the RSC, Salome at Riverside Studios, Tantalus and The Bacchai (both masked productions), Waiting for Godot in Peter Hall's revival with Ben Kingsley, Alan Howard, the late Denis Quilley and me playing Lucky, and Enrico IV at the Citizens' Glasgow, directed by Philip Prowse.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
They are much the same as my highlights. Salome, directed by Mick Gordon at the Riverside, was a truly maverick and completely original production for which there was no blueprint at all. Enrico IV at Glasgow, because I wasn't ever meant to play the part. Richard Harris, who was supposed to do it, never turned up. They couldn't get anyone mad enough to learn it in ten days, but I was in the company already playing a much more modest role, so I stepped in. Tantalus was long and difficult and demanding, but I loved the whole thing of working in masks. I like the ritual of it, and the formality and the restraint - it allows me to release more of my inner spirit as an actor. It sounds paradoxical, but I'm a great believer in strong form as a means of releasing spontaneity.
I enjoyed working with Tim Piggot-Smith on Julius Caesar and Harriet Walter and Emily Woof on Salome. Tim, because he's a highly accomplished classical actor - the tent scene in Julius Caesar is one of the great double acts of all time, and we really hit it off. There was a good chemistry between us. Harriet and Emily are two actresses with such singular styles and, with them both in the same production, I loved going between one and the other: so completely different. An American actress Alyssa Bresnahan in Tantalus was also terrific.
Philip Prowse, because he's very, very rigorous and unsentimental with me. He doesn't allow me to get away with any affectation. I have to be very plain with him, he doesn't like my 'acting'. Peter Hall, because he's just so phenomenal about the form of verse and he trusts me implicitly. David Farr, who I've just worked with on Coriolanus, is really quite brilliant. He's got such a perceptive eye.
Anton Chekhov - I've done The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Three Sisters - because you can weave a whole world of a character between the lines that he's written, and you can't always do that in a play. With Chekhov, there's a constant back story from which you can live the entire history of the character. Harold Pinter - though I've only done one, The Homecoming with Peter Hall - I like him because he's so uncompromisingly savage and telling about the human condition. Samuel Beckett - I've done Waiting for Godot and a two-hander called Company with Stephen Moore at the Tron in Glasgow - because he makes me laugh.
What is that attracts you so much to classical theatre?
I wanted to forge my own style as a classical actor. I love the Greeks, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Pinter, because I love the form and structure of their plays. Playing these huge, massive archetypes, particularly with the Greeks, is very releasing, as opposed to playing Paul, say, in some contemporary play about the Labour Party. That isn't to say that modern playwriting doesn't have form, but it's much harder to find it. Sometimes new plays are fabulous shots in the dark, but they don't have a track record.
What was it like being caught in the eye of the storm that engulfed The Romans in Britain, a modern play you did at the National that was prosecuted for obscenity when your character was graphically raped onstage?
It was a play of epic proportions - not a small domestic drama - a huge play that was trying to explore the whole principle and dynamic of imperialism in ancient Rome and contemporary Ireland. It became about something else when Mary Whitehouse launched her private prosecution that was subsequently withdrawn. At first, I was excited by the notoriety, but then it began to dawn on me that we were living in a very unliberal world. And I was quite alarmed by the fact that we were causing so much trouble. I stood to be fined a lot of money, and waving our director, Michael Bogdanov, goodbye if he was sent to prison.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I don't hanker after roles. I never have done - though I've always been sure that I would never play Hamlet! There's a line in a TS Eliot poem, "I was not Prince Hamlet, nor ever meant to be." I remembered reading that at drama school and thinking, "yes, that's right". But I'm about to play Macbeth now, so I'm not starved for parts.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Theatre de Complicite's The Elephant Vanishes - I thought it was truly, truly groundbreaking. It broke completely new ground in performance and direction and the use of multimedia. I also thought it was incredibly simple as well. It just blew me away.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Across the board, ministers should make it their mission to attend as many plays as they can. The first thing is come to theatre more often, since so very few of them do. With Coriolanus, the whole of the Labour Party should have seen it. When Prince Charles came, there was a definite sense that he was provoked by it, and it made me think what would have happened if New Labour were to watch it.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Chekhov - because I'm just fascinated by that turn of history before the Russian revolution and how his life was in the Moscow Arts Theatre with Stanislavski. The whole period is fascinating. It was a rich time of exploring the whole notion of a new kind of acting, and I admire Chekhov as a playwright so much, and, through his letters, I admire him as a man, too.
Favourite holiday destinations
I go to the Greek islands a lot, and I've just got back from my umpteenth visit. I also go to Rio a lot. My best friend, who I got to know when he taught me a martial arts form called kapoeira, lives there. He's coming here soon to teach the technique to RSC actors.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso is a re-invention of the canon of Greek mythology, weaving ancient Greek mythology into contemporary 21st-century consciousness. Also Chekhov's letters, because they make me really feel the man and his life.
Easy Jet - to get me to the Greek islands.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would like to think I would have had something to do with the legal profession, but think I would have ended up as a salesman. Selling quite what, I have no idea.
Why did you want to accept your part in Messiah?
I played Lucifer in a read-through, and I thought it was such a provocative and brilliant and dangerous piece of work. When Steven is "on song", he's a fantastic writer, and there is some absolutely vintage Berkoff writing in this production. It's also a great privilege to finally be working with him. We've become friends over the years, but we've never worked together until now.
How do you feel about playing the son of God? And, more specifically, playing opposite Steven Berkoff's Satan?
It's that big that, at the moment, I'm in a state of shock and disbelief. I can believe doing Macbeth, no problem, but I cannot quite believe I'm playing Jesus at the Old Vic opposite Steven. When it was first given to me as an idea, I thought the universe was having a joke at my expense.
Do you think the play is blasphemous?
I've thought about this, and I might very well get some difficult approaches from people who do have strong religious convictions. But anything that's the provocative pursuit of truth has to be justifiable. And I don't think that Steven is in any sense being puerile or childish in this pursuit - it's a serious examination of an alternative view of the Christian story. If Jesus were alive today, he would be big enough to face a questioning process, and besides, from a personal point of view, I've never been sure that we've been given the whole story anyway.
Are you very religious yourself?
I was brought up Jewish, so that's a strange ingredient in this recipe, and I was quite serious about it. I even had a place at Rabbinical college at 16, until I discovered the theatre. There are quite a lot of closet priests in our business! So, for me, I was brought up on a legacy that accepted that Jesus might have been a jolly good chap, but not that he was the son of God in a literal sense. This play explores the notion that he was a man - squarely flesh and blood - in a very human situation.
What's your favourite line from Messiah?
Talking about getting into heaven and proving that it isn't exclusively for the rich, I say, "You think God says you can't come in without a jacket?"
Your next role is Macbeth for the RSC. Do you worry about curses?
No! And looking back on it, nothing untoward happened in the last one I did, either. It was a fringe version at BAC, directed by my ex-partner, and we did a really wacky, predominantly female version.
What are your other plans for the future?
I think it will be a first that someone is playing Jesus at night and rehearsing Macbeth by day, so that's quite exciting. I'd also like to try movies now.
Messiah continues at the West End's Old Vic, where it's booking up to 3 January 2004. Macbeth will run in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 18 March to 2 October 2004 (previews from 6 March).